Friday, May 20, 2011

A Nineteenth Century Field Trip

The "phantom" woman I pointed out a couple of days ago is far from being the only thing mysterious about the Charter Oak. The legend of the tree and its place in Connecticut history has continued to grow over the centuries. When Frederic Church painted his version of the Charter Oak around 1846, the tree was still standing in Hartford. In his rendering, several figures can be seen visiting the tree, which was a historic landmark even then. This pair, a woman who appears to be writing and a young boy, may be on something like the equivalent of our educational field trips today.

Why take a field trip to see a tree, you wonder? The tree was the legendary hiding place for a very important colonial document, the Connecticut Charter. Granted by Charles II in 1662, this document ensured the inhabitants of Connecticut the right to a popularly elected governor who ruled in the king's stead. The charter also acted as a constitution for the colony, a service which it continued to perform into the nineteenth century. When King James II demanded the return of the Connecticut Charter in 1685 in order to create one giant royal colony in America the citizens of Connecticut took action.

The newly appointed governor arrived in Hartford (along with 60 armed men) to seize power in 1687, but the colonists resisted. In a move likely orchestrated to cause chaos and confusion, the candles of the meeting hall where the handover was to take place suddenly went out. When order was restored and the lights blazed again, the charter was gone and so was Captain Joseph Wadsworth.

Wadsworth spirited the document away and allegedly hid it in the hollow of a tree, now known as the Charter Oak, on the property of Samuel Wyllys in Hartford. There it stayed, secreted away for more than two years until William and Mary restored Connecticut's right to again rule itself under the original charter.

For its role in, literally, defending the constitution of the colony, the tree itself was honored for the rest of its days. When a storm brought the tree down in 1856, mourners gathered at the site, collecting souvenirs of the venerable oak. One of the "souvenirs," so to speak, exists to this day at the Florence Griswold Museum. Not the painting by Church, but an actual tree; a white oak on the grounds is a descendant of the original tree (at left). Acorns gathered from the Charter Oak have been planted, with ensuing generations of trees known as the "scions" of the Charter Oak.

No comments: